Image: Dead whale
This 740-pound pilot whale died shortly after washing up on a beach in Allenhurst N.J.
updated 10/4/2011 12:14:41 PM ET 2011-10-04T16:14:41

Rescuers knew something was seriously wrong with the short-finned pilot whale when it beached itself on the New Jersey shore.

The nearly 11-foot-long whale, which was near death, weighed about 740 pounds but should have easily tipped the scales at more than 1,000 pounds. It died shortly after police responded, but it wasn't until a necropsy was performed that the shocking cause of death was revealed.

Someone had shot the whale.

The wound near its blow hole had closed and faded somewhat, indicating the animal had been shot as long as a month ago, said Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. The bullet lodged in the whale's jaw, causing an infection that left it unable to eat.

"This poor animal literally starved to death," Schoelkopf said. "It was wandering around and slowly starving to death because of the infection. Who would do that to an innocent animal?"

That's what federal law enforcement authorities want to know as well. Whales are among the species protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violators can be fined up to $100,000 and sent to prison for a year.

The whale washed up on the beach at Allenhurst, a small Monmouth County beach town just north of Asbury Park on Sept. 24.

Schoelkopf said the whale could have been shot anywhere on the East Coast, given the amount of time that it spent losing weight before dying. He said authorities think the bullet, which was recovered from the animal's jaw, came from a .30-caliber rifle.

He said shark fishermen commonly carry guns to shoot large sharks they catch before bringing them aboard boats, and speculated that someone on a boat where fishing was slow decided to use the whale for target practice.

Image: Allenhurst workers removed the carcass of a 740-pound pilot whale
The carcass of the pilot whale is removed shortly after washing up.

"Whoever did this couldn't have been out there alone and we're hoping somebody who was there speaks up," Schoelkopf said.

He said there have been no other reports of whales being shot on the East Coast, but there remains an active investigation into the fatal shootings of several gray seals in Massachusetts earlier this year.

Short-finned pilot whales are part of the dolphin family. They have bulbous melon heads, and their dorsal fin is located far forward on the body. While the animal is swimming, it bears some resemblance to more commonly known species of dolphins.

There have been scattered reports of fishermen shooting at dolphins that they blame for interfering with their catch.

The whales travel in large groups of 25 to 50 animals, feeding primarily on squid, octopus and fish. According to the national Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, there are about 31,000 pilot whales (both long and short-finned) in the western north Atlantic Ocean.

There are an additional 300 or so off the West Coast of the United States, about 8,800 in Hawaii, and 2,400 in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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